A re-imagined old classic is being served up at Musical Theater Heritage like a slice of authentic Americana and audiences are loving it.
“Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a familiar tale based on Mark Twain’s book about Huck Finn and his pals. The musical, adapted from Twain’s book by William Hauptman, took the theater scene by storm when it won 7 Tony Awards in 1985 including Best Musical and Best Original Score by Roger Miller.
Despite its great success, the masterpiece has been unjustly forgotten for the most part, aside from a 2003 Broadway revival and some smaller productions. MTH is giving audiences a rare chance to experience an amazing show.
“Big River” is set in the midwest pre-Civil War. Poor Huck Finn (played by New York actor Devon Norris) is trying his best to be a good boy and follow the rules set out by his guardians Widow Douglas (Nancy Nail) and Mrs. Watson (Lindsay James). But it’s tough when you are an adventure craving young man. And Huck’s shenanigans certainly aren’t stopped by his even more ornery friend Tom Sawyer (Preston O’ffill), who has a flare for the dramatic and a tendency to unwittingly cause trouble.
Many great songs in the production come from the “growing pains” Huck has finding his way through the world with his friends by his side including “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven,” “The Boys,” “I, Huckleberry Me” and others.
Some silly songs added in the mix keep the audience laughing like “Guv’ment,” “Hand For The Hog,” “The Royal Nonesuch” and “Arkansas/How Blest We are.”
But it’s the serious songs that will take your breath away. After Huck escapes the grip of his deadbeat, alcoholic Pap (Kip Niven), he heads down the Mississippi River and soon joins up with his friend Jim (played ,Justin McCoy) who also happens to be a runaway slave.
Floating down the big river, Huck and Jim feel a sense of freedom that they’ve never known before. Norris and McCoy both have beautiful voices in their own right. But put them together and their harmonies will make a grown, tough man cry.
When they belt out the lyrics to “Muddy Waters,” it would be quite the task to avoid smiling. As they sing, “I’ve got a need for going some place. I’ve got a need to climb upon your back and ride,” you can feel the authenticity in their voices. Freedom at last.
More solemn moments lead to songs like “River In The Rain” during which no one around me had dry eyes.
The lyrics go,
“If you’re on the run
Winding some place just tryin’ to find the sun
Whether the sunshine whether the rain
River I love you just the same.”
The words communicate a sense of pain and hope. I have never heard it sung more beautifully.
When Jim and Huck come across a boat on the river carrying runaway slaves who were captured, we are offered a haunting version of “The Crossing” led by vocalist Bri Woods. The audience was captivated, leaning in as the words rang out.
“Big River” is not just a show you go see. It’s the type of show you experience and it changes you.
Go see “Big River” because it gives us a theatrical glimpse into our American history. Go see it if you love theater. Go see it if you love music. But by all means, go see it. This is one show everyone will want to see.
“Big River” runs through June 26 at MTH in Crown Center. For more information, visit www.mthkc.com.